Genesis 22:11 “But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 12 He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’ 15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.’”
With Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday happening this weekend, I was reading through Genesis 22 again today, being reminded of its foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection (as the author of Hebrews hints at in Hebrews 11:19: “He [Abraham] considered that God was able to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”)
One phrase caught my attention from Genesis 22:17 that I don’t think I’d ever consciously noticed before. “…And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies…”
I understood the verse, on one level, to be stating that Abraham’s offspring would be victorious. Possessing the gates of one’s enemies meant that the enemy’s city was conquered. The gates had fallen. The city was captured.
With that picture of Jesus’ death and resurrection Genesis 22 paints and its mention in passing of the “… the gate of his enemies…,” it opened up for me a meaning I’d never before seen in Matthew 16:18 and Jesus’ words to Simon Peter about “the gates of hell” or “the gates of hades.”
Matthew 16:16 “Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ 17 And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’”
I had some historical understanding that I’d picked up from somewhere that “the gates of hades” referred to the gates of the pagan underworld: the gates of death; the gates of the grave. I’d also learned that there was an actual location given this designation; the mouth of a cave in the side of a rock in Caesarea, Philippi. And Jesus and His disciples were in Caesarea when He’d spoken His words about the “gates of hell” to Peter (Matt. 16:13).
In doing a little research to write this post, I also learned that this site, “the gates of hell,” was the scene of pagan perversions and tragedies, including the human sacrifice that had been normalized in Abraham’s day but that his God and the God of his offspring had prevented in Abraham’s case and prohibited forever after.
“In Old Testament times, the northeastern area of Israel became a center for Baal worship. In the nearby city of Dan, Israelite king Jeroboam built the high place that angered God and eventually led the Israelites to worship false gods. Eventually, worship of the baals was replaced with worship of Greek fertility gods. […]
“To the pagan mind, the cave at Caesarea Philippi created a gate to the underworld, where fertility gods lived during the winter. They committed detestable acts to worship these false gods.
“Caesarea Philippi’s location was especially unique because it stood at the base of a cliff where spring water flowed. At one time, the water ran directly from the mouth of a cave set in the bottom of the cliff.
“The pagans of Jesus’ day commonly believed that their fertility gods lived in the underworld during the winter and returned to earth each spring. They saw water as a symbol of the underworld and thought that their gods traveled to and from that world through caves.
“To the pagan mind, then, the cave and spring water at Caesarea Philippi created a gate to the underworld. They believed that their city was literally at the gates of the underworld ‘the gates of hell.’ In order to entice the return of their god, Pan, each year, the people of Caesarea Philippi engaged in horrible deeds […]”
There was that one, perfect human sacrifice, however, that God did accept. Although God did not want Abraham to kill Isaac, He did ordain the human sacrifice that earlier offering prefigured: the sacrifice of Himself: the perfect God and the perfect Man. It was the reason God had to become man: in order to be the sinless substitute sacrifice. That substitute represented by, in the end of the Abraham and Isaac story, a ram caught in the thicket.
Because of Abraham’s faith and obedience, notice God’s promise to him after the offering: a promise of offspring. New life.
And that was the result (and the point) of God’s sacrifice of Himself. Not only could the gates of hades—the gates of the underworld; the gates of death; the stone of His cave tomb—not keep Him bound, His offspring—new life—was the reason for it all. It was the point of the exercise.
Isaiah 53:10b. “[…] when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days […]
It’s interesting to note how the truth gets muddied and muddled and distorted and diverted. But yet, there are echoes remaining. The pagans in Caesarea saw the gates of hell as not only the gates of death but as the gates of new life; as the place from which returning life and fertility sprang every year. Instead of the substitute ram caught in the thicket (or later a lamb), they chose the goat god “Pan” to represent this life and fertility.
I’ve always thought it no coincidence that Jesus’ death and resurrection happened at the time of year when everything dead is starting to wake up and come to life. Every year, nature goes through a type of resurrection of its own. He is the God who created the seasons, after all. I often see pictures planted in nature of God’s greater truths.
We modern pagans again distort and distract by making Easter all about bunnies and chicks and lambs (and chocolate). But there is the undeniable “new life” theme that emerges from the springtime celebration.
In closing, I want to highlight Jesus’ words to Peter that follow the bits about the gates of hell.
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Now, (as the spiritual “offspring” of Abraham—see Romans 4:16) those gates of the enemy are ours to conquer under God’s command.
Revelation 1:17 “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.'”
Revelation 3:7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. 8 “I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” ‘ “
Make no mistake! The keys to the gates of hell are Jesus’ keys. But He entrusts them to us to let people out of the grave, that cave of death, through the knowledge that Peter opened the discussion with in Matthew 16. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Here, I believe, we see the keys that open up those gates of hell to the prisoners to death. Those keys that were entrusted to Peter. Those keys that had been handed him not by flesh and blood but by the Father in heaven.
The verses I quoted from Revelation 3 have a great deal of significance for me. They’ve been a theme of my life for a few years now. (Incidentally, Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me,” was the verse that God used as a key to open up that door to His kingdom many, many years ago when I was barely even old enough to remember my own decision to open up that door of my heart to Him.)
For years now, I’ve seen in the Revelation 3 verses quoted above some kind of vague promise to me of an open door. Not just the open door out of the kingdom of death and the open door into the kingdom of God that I walked through all those years ago, but a promise for my life since then. It’s the real reason for the blog name of my Open Door blog.
But I haven’t gained any greater understanding or seen any clear fulfillment of what I’d believed was His promise to me at that time. Instead, there has been over a decade of that winter season in my own life—dreams lying dormant and seemingly-dead.
Am I now coming into some kind of renewal and restoration to life? I think maybe I am. There have been signs of spring on the horizon for some time now. A resolution to the main issue that kept me in the winter of depression is almost within sight now. (That will be a different blog post when that solution finally arrives.)
But although I sense some kind of door creaking open for me, I don’t know what’s on the other side of it. The future looks as unknown as ever.
So I’ll leave it on the altar to see what sort of a resurrection God has in mind for old dreams and new life.
Is there some apparently dead dream of what you once believed were God’s promises to you? Maybe this is the season of its resurrection. Is there an open door God’s setting before you, sunlight streaming in to the former blackness of an unlit cave? Is it the door to His new life and the kingdom of heaven that He’s calling you to walk through? Or is it the door of some specific promise you thought you’d heard from Him, then wondered if the dream was dead, then began to see the stirrings of new life in it? Whatever it is, if God’s set before you an Open Door, I dare you to accept the challenge. Walk through it! See what happens!
(All Scriptures quoted are from the English Standard Version)